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Buttigieg Pursues Black Voters at Rev. Barber’s Church

December 3, 2019

Pete Buttigieg spoke at Rev. William Barber’s church in North Carolina, discussing racial and inequality issues that are highlighted in the Poor People’s Campaign platform. But will this be enough to raise his support among Black voters?

Pete Buttigieg spoke at Rev. William Barber’s church in North Carolina, discussing racial and inequality issues that are highlighted in the Poor People’s Campaign platform. But will this be enough to raise his support among Black voters?


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Story Transcript

REVEREND WILLIAM BARBER: You wanted to offer this opportunity for a serious in-depth conversation about how we must address the systemic racism, systemic poverty.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: And I think what we have today and what we have in this effort as is moral call to unity that is not only about politics, but that calls everybody who is politically active to pay attention to these issues.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

Pete Buttigieg recently spoke at Reverend William Barber’s church in North Carolina, discussing racial and inequality issues that are highlighted in much of the poor people’s campaign that Reverend William Barber heads in their platform. But reports about Buttigieg’s lack of support among Black voters are emerging against the backdrop of this event and amid recent reports of his surge to the top of the democratic candidate field and a recent Iowa poll. So why isn’t Mayor Pete on Black voters’ list at all? Do Black voters across the nation just not know him or are they finding out more about him that makes them wary? And if the wariness about Mayor Pete is valid, was Buttigieg’s appearance at Barber’s church more damage control than regular campaign stop?

Well, here to discuss these issues today are in the studio with me, Marc Steiner. He is the interim coeditor at The Real News Network. He is a Peabody award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for civil rights protests in the freedom rides through Cambridge. Not going to ask you how old you are, but thank you so much for joining us, Marc, in this studio.

MARC STEINER: We can do the math later.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And joining us via Skype from Prince George’s County, Maryland is Bill Fletcher Jr. Bill is a racial justice labor and international activist and author of the book They’re Bankrupting Us! And 20 Other Myths About Unions and Solidarity Divided. Thank you so much for joining me, Bill.

BILL FLETCHER: It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let’s get into this. Because I think we really need to unpack this issue right now with Buttigieg since he is at the top of the Iowa poll and he is the current Democratic darling. Ever since the Iowa poll came out, and really before, there’s been a serious discussion about Buttigieg’s track record among Black voters in South Bend when he was mayor for two terms. Now, those discussions intensified over the past few weeks for various reasons, so there’s a healthy dose of skepticism about Buttigieg’s appearance at Barber’s church. But just to begin the discussion, let’s start this, use this as a springboard. What are each of your thoughts on the effectiveness of this appearance by this particular candidate at this particular church for this campaign season? Is it a generally good strategy that any candidate should incorporate into their campaign? Or is it a bad idea? Bill, let’s start with you.

BILL FLETCHER: I think that visiting with Reverend Barber is a brilliant idea to any candidate particularly because of Reverend Barber’s outstanding work on behalf of poor and working people in the United States. So I think that Buttigieg visiting Reverend Barber would make perfect sense under any circumstances. Now, I think that in this case, you have a white candidate from Indiana who is not known as an outspoken advocate for Black people, for poor people. And I suspect that his advisers are saying that, “If you want to break into Black America, if you want to make any hey with working people in general, you have to change your image. You have to get beyond this white bread image.” And so from a tactical standpoint, it makes a lot of sense.

I’m not surprised African Americans aren’t impressed with him, because he’s not very impressive. I mean, not from our standpoint. And I think that we have to look at him in two contexts. One is that there remains a search in the democratic party for a candidate that can block Sanders and Warren and can be a middle of the road person, and he’s one of those people that’s being held up. The second thing is that, what the Democrats have to understand is that the amount of support that African Americans have given the Biden is probably directly related to the fact that Biden served as the vice president to a Black Barack Obama. Not that Biden knew how to talk with Black folks or anything else, but that he actually played second fiddle to a Black person. And that means a lot to a lot of African Americans, even if politically they’re not necessarily in agreement with him. Buttigieg has none of those characteristics.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Interesting. So Marc, what is your take on that?

MARC STEINER: Well, I think it was a really smart move on Buttigieg’s part to go to North Carolina, Reverend Barber’s church. I mean, he clearly is trying to undercut and change the perception that he doesn’t have enough empathy or understanding or alliance with the Black community and the struggles in and around racism and race in this country. So that was a smart move. He’s a brilliant guy. I mean, he speaks numerous languages, he’s very cool, he’s articulate. It’s just a shame that both our first African American president and now our first major gay candidate for president both have to be centrists.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah. That is a little bit of an issue. But let’s talk about these issues though. Let’s talk about these issues with Buttigieg, especially in particular with Black voters. We’re learning more about his record coming out of South Bend now. And it’s being amplified now because these conversations have been going on for a while. There have been serious questions about his relationship with Black constituents in South Bend. Politico reported on the decline in his support among Black voters in predominantly Black districts over his two terms. And one of those policies was directly impactful of Black people in South Bend and those Black neighborhoods.

And that was his housing policy that he targeted largely Black neighborhoods where apparently the goal was to rehabilitate or demolish abandoned or blighted houses. But it was not implemented well. It seemed to have caused problems for mostly Black residents because the very first implementation phase was to find residents who did not comply with these new rules that were rolled out so fast that nobody knew what they were supposed to comply with.

So Bill, as we’re hearing about issue coming out of South Bend where Mayor Pete, as he’s affectionately called, honestly, I think it’s because people can’t pronounce his last name. But it seems that he didn’t have a grasp on how to engage the community he says he was trying to help in South Bend. How does that play when Black voters on a national level hear that a mayor of a city with a large, predominantly Black population had that much of a problem with that kind of a policy?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, it’s complicated because one of the things that have to be looked at is whether the problem was in the policy or the problem was the implementation, and who was involved with implementing the policy. But having said that, I would go further and say as the mayor, the mayor has to take responsibility and even if the mayor has the best of intentions, if the policy is being implemented in a way that is discriminatory or ineffective, the mayor needs to intervene. That’s part of the job of the mayor. And if he didn’t do that, if he sat back, that is not the example that we need for someone who seeks to be the president of the United States.

But the other thing that I keep coming back to is what we need right now in an elected leader, in a president. When we have a vast polarization of wealth in this country not seen since right before the depression, when we have that kind of situation, when we have stagnation for millions of people, we need someone that gets that. Not someone that needs to be educated on that, but somebody that gets it. And get it in their gut and they’re comfortable speaking about the plight of the marginalized, the plight of the dispossessed. Buttigieg, he’ll speak about his experience as a gay man–which I think is significant–but that’s not enough. We need a different kind of vision, and it doesn’t feel that that has been reflected in his experience as the mayor of South Bend.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: You bring up a great point about his inability to connect with marginalized people. Two great points, and the other that we’re going to try to get to later, Bill. But I want to bring up this point about his inability to connect with and speak to the issues of marginalized people, and particularly poor people. Because he made this comment about how politicians are told to speak about or how they’re told not to speak about poor people at Barber’s church this past Sunday. We have a clip; I think of his comment.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Frankly, people in politics are often specifically advised to speak of the middle-class, and not to use the word poor or poverty too much. I guess it’s not considered to be as helpful politically to talk about that. But of course there no scripture telling us, “As you’ve done to the middle-class, so you have done to me.” So if we think about the moral imperatives that are at stake right now in an election this, we have to think about whether we are making ourselves useful to those who are most vulnerable and those who are most in need.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, Marc that’s an interesting expression you have on your face there. So I want to ask you this question. He seemed to say the right words. He’s in a church, so he referenced scripture. But he didn’t reference a particular scripture, which as a Christian, let me tell you, it’s very easy if you actually read the book to reference the scripture about the poor. He did make the connection, but to Bill’s point about his seeming inability to connect with the real life struggles of marginalized people, especially poor people. How did that statement sound to you? Does it sound like something was missing to you? What was that response?

MARC STEINER: First, I think he should have, assuming he didn’t have somebody who’s either Christian or Black… And I’m not the one that was on his campaign advisor to give him a part of the Bible as he quote. It would help the young man a lot. But having said that, I thought that what he said at the top was very real about what you’re told not to do in politics and the danger zone of talking about poor people. If he’s learning that that’s wrong and he wants to pick up that mantle, start talking about the poor and working people in this country and how we have to change all that, that’d be great.

I’m not sure that means that at all, but at least he said that. And then he went from there to what I would consider… He went on a downward slope. It was his opportunity to go, “And this is what we can do about it to change what’s happening in America.” He didn’t do that. So he’s really in some ways–as brilliant as he is and all he’s done–he’s really detached, I think, in some ways from the reality that everyday working people, Black, White, Native, Latino, whoever they are, Asian, in this country have to address and have to deal with. He’s detached of that, and you could sense that detachment.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And if you could sense that detachment, it is not difficult to imagine that several people in that church and several thousands of people who have heard him speak sense that detachment as well. Continuing on that issue of this detachment, and I think you touched on a key point. I think that’s a very key point, Marc that Buttigieg says the right things, but when we’re looking at his record, we’re seeing something different. People are questioning his record. And then there is the issue of the way he responds to the criticism of his record. That seems even more stilted and scripted and very stiff.

In particular, as we’re looking at Buttigieg’s record and Black voters are criticizing his policies in South Bend not just with housing, but the issue with the messy firing of the first Black police chief there in that very convoluted case where there may have been white police officers involved with plotting to get Buttigieg to do exactly what he did, to fire the police chief. There has not been a response that has seem satisfactory to a lot of people. But then there are the criticisms of Black voters who criticize Buttigieg, Bill, and chalk their criticism of him up to this idea that the reason Black voters won’t vote for him is because Black voters don’t like gay people. I think this is interesting because this is not the narrative that Black voters who have an issue with Buttigieg narrative that Black voters who have an issue with Buttigieg are bringing up. This seems to be a media narrative, but Buttigieg’s response to it is also very politically scripted seemingly. This is what he said in response to some of that criticism.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: On some level I think what it’s come down to is this, there are some who have concluded that the only way that their policies and their politicians will prevail is if not everybody gets to vote. To me that’s a pretty good sign that you got to change your policies and your politicians. But this is the rear guard action of an anti-majoritarian force that sees that there are more people who believe in this moral call to do right, especially by the most vulnerable among us, but have figured out a way to disempower that coalition that could exist. And that calls out for action beginning with a 21st century voting rights act.

SPEAKER: I want to ask you about a controversy over the last week or so regarding Black voters and homosexuality in a leaked memo from your campaign that suggested that could be an issue, particularly in South Carolina. So, I want to know: was it a mistake for your campaign to ask about that question?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Let me say this: homophobia is a problem. And it is not a problem that just affects one part of America. Indeed, if you look at the most anti-LGBTQ policies and the politicians who have pushed them, they have generally not been politicians who had a lot of support in the Black community. So I think it’s unfair to suggest that homophobia is only an issue in the Black community, when really it’s an issue in America. And it’s also an issue where America is moving in the right direction.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Bill, is his response believable? Is it enough to dispense with this idea that Black people wouldn’t vote for him because he’s gay? And what does that kind of narrative do in this very valid discussion about the potential for this particular candidate, whether he’s gay or not, to address the issues of other groups of marginalized people?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, whether it was the mayor that feared homophobia within Black America, whether it was one of his staff, we’ll probably only find out when it was a book written about the campaign. I guess I would say that the response that Buttigieg gave just now was a decent response. And I think that he’s right that Black America is not overly homophobic. Black voters voted for Bonnie Frank and supported Bonnie Frank. I mean there’s any number of examples of gay and lesbian leaders that have been supported by Black community, or people that we thought were gay or lesbian that we nevertheless supported.

If I were his adviser, I would say, “Mr. Mayor, I think one of the things we’re going to do, we’re going to take a little trip.” And this is sort of the advice that I gave to people around the Bernie Sander’s campaign in 2016. Because I feel like Buttigieg is making some of the same mistakes that Sanders made in 2016. He is defensive. It seems to feel that people need to get to know him as opposed to that he needs to get to know the people. And that can lead you down a very slippery slope.

So I would say to the mayor, I’d say, “Let’s take a trip. And we’re going to really talk with not just Reverend Barber. We’re going to go into Indian reservations. We’re going to go into El Barrio. We’re going to go into a number of places and talk with leaders or grassroots people in historically marginalized communities. We’re going to go through Appalachia. We’re going to talk to coal miners that are desperate, White coal miners. We’re going to talk with them, we’re going to listen to them.” I think right now he needs to do a little bit of a listening tour and listen to the leaders and members of these different communities. He might then have a better sense of strategy.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So last question for the both of you just wrapping this up. Looking at the totality of the track record of the young and up and coming Mayor Pete, the struggles that he has had connecting with the Black community in South Bend, the issues that he is having connecting with Black voters now. What does he do aside from what you just suggested, Bill Fletcher, which I think are excellent suggestions? What does he do to counter these continued gaps? Like with the issue with the release of his Douglass Plan. Does he change his message, where there are supposedly all of these Black leaders who signed on in support of this Douglass Plan. And then when it’s released some of the Black leaders say, “No, we didn’t sign on to that, or this isn’t how it was presented to us. And there’s a stock photo that was used from Kenya.”

How does he clean up his image aside from just speaking at Barber’s church and going on listening tours? Can these things save his campaign? And can they increase his support among the Black voters that he so desperately needs to win in the general election?

MARC STEINER: I mean, as someone who has worked on a lot of campaigns and managed several campaigns, first thing I would tell Pete Buttigieg is: you’ve got to tighten your campaign office up. You can’t have something slipping out about “Black folks don’t like gay people.” You’ve got to be careful. He should have dealt with that. And the other issue is as well that he has to control what’s happening inside. If you lose control at the inside of your campaign, you can lose your campaign. That’s just strategically thinking. And beyond that, look, he has to deal with his record.

And I think that even though most people don’t know the nuance of what happened to the police chief in South Bend. Clearly, he was manipulated and used by some racist white officers who didn’t want to be caught on tape and wanting to get rid of this Black chief of police. And so he has to really address those things and he really has to address them adequately. He’s dancing around without really getting into it. I think Bill was absolutely correct about what he has to do, but where he has to focus.

And with a man who can speak fluent Spanish and fluent Arabic, to go to states where those populations of people are Arab Americans and various populations of Latino Americans could make the difference in a place like Michigan. He should be out there doing something to talk to people. I think this is not Buttigieg’s year. I don’t think it’s his year at all. And I think that he’s got a future, but hopefully he’s going to get learning from these mistakes that he’s made in this campaign. But politically he’s stuck in his little mold and he can’t let himself out of it at any level. And that’s part of the problem.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Bill, I saw you nodding your head. Do you agree?

BILL FLETCHER: Oh, I agree, absolutely. But I would add to that. I think that he needs a different campaign manager, or he needs an adviser who is to his left and is of color.

MARC STEINER: Yes.

BILL FLETCHER: Someone that can kick him in his rear end when he starts to say certain things that are just wrong. And someone that could also call out members of the staff and say, “No, this is not the way we’re going to be proceeding.” And that doesn’t mean that this kind of adviser is right about everything. But what I mean is that he needs just as Sanders needed in 2016 and did not get it, as far as I was concerned. You get these candidates who are in a bubble and they’re in a very comfortable bubble and they get reinforced while they’re in this bubble about things that should not necessarily be reinforceable. And every so often you need someone outside the bubble that has like a big pin and they’re poking the bubble and bursting it so that reality breaks through. And I think that the mayor, with all due respect, needs that person and needs that pin.

MARC STEINER: Amen to that.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, clearly this is much more of an issue than some oversimplification that the media might fabricate about Black people not liking any particular demographic of person that they want to vote for. This really is about issues and the ability to connect and the ability to speak to the issues that people that you want to vote for you, believe that you will help them with. If you cannot do that, they will not vote for you. This is true of Pete Buttigieg. It is true of every other candidate, Democrat or Republican. And that is why we are here at The Real News, having these kinds of conversations. And I thank you so much, Bill Fletcher for joining us from Prince George’s County via Skype.

BILL FLETCHER: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you very much, Marc Steiner. You’re always a joy to talk to.

MARC STEINER: It’s always fun to be a guest rather than the host. I like it.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So we certainly hope that you always have fun watching us here on The Real News Network. I am Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News from Baltimore.